Saturday, 31 March 2012

The Complete Stories of Sherlock Holmes

Recently I have become a little bit obsessed with the character of Sherlock Holmes as a result of finally getting round to watching the Guy Ritchie films and the hugely popular BBC television series. I vaguely remember watching some adaptations as a child, which focused more on supernatural stories and I had previously read The Hound of the Baskervilles at some point, but a few weeks ago I found myself searching through Foyles and Waterstones for the full collection of stories and eventually found a 1,400 page tome full of The Complete Stories of Sherlock Holmes for a bargain £6.99 in Waterstones on Oxford Street!

So far I have read the first two books A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of the Four. As I had very recently caught up on series one of Sherlock I was surprised and impressed to see that the initial A Study in Pink episode was very heavily based on this first story and much of the plot is used. The dialogue between Holmes and Watson on their first meeting is very similar and has been expertly updated.

I am glad that these recent adaptations have made Sherlock Holmes into a ‘cool’ and clever character once more. Previous series have come across as a little boring and I think that Robert Downey Jnr and Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayals of the detective, although both very different, work really well and I can see glimpses of both interpretations in Canon Doyle’s writing (as well as Jude Law and Martin Freeman’s excellent depictions of John Watson). I wouldn’t have necessarily been persuaded to read these stories without these big and small screen representations and I am very happy that they have increased sales in the books to a new audience.

From just reading these couple of books I have realised how funny and intelligent Arthur Canan Doyle’s writing is, how action-packed and dangerous the stories are and what a lovely tribute to London Doyle has written, with the city captured brilliantly on each page. I am looking forward to reading the remainder of the stories alongside watching series two of Sherlock!

Friday, 30 March 2012

Harry Potter Studio Tour Review

Last weekend I was very lucky to be given the opportunity to visit the Warner Brothers Harry Potter Studio Tour in Leavesden, Hertfordshire on one of their preview days. I have been a Harry Potter fan for fifteen years, ever since I was drawn into the magical world of Hogwarts while reading the first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. It did take me a while to get used to the films, as I had my own visions of Diagon Alley and all the characters, but as each big-screen adaptation got bigger, bolder and darker, I really started to enjoy the film versions and now when reading the books I find myself imagining the sets and actor from the films and cannot see anyone else playing the roles of Harry, Snape et al.

Ever since I heard about the studio tour plans, I have been so excited about being able to explore the working film sets and the attraction delivers even more than I thought it would. Leavesden Studios is formerly Leavesden Aerodrome with an airfield and factory and has been home to the HP films for the last ten years. It is very well sign-posted from the M25 and the drive in is spectacular, with iconic images from the film emblazoned on the side of the studios. There are even three of the huge ‘Wizard’s Chess’ figures to greet you near the entrance. The staff cannot be more friendly or helpful and the atrium is amazing, with huge images of cast members on all of the surrounding walls and props from the films including Mr Weasley’s flying car. There is a great CafĂ© to wait until your tour starts and the shop is very well stocked, if a little expensive.

The tour begins with a short introduction in a holding room with various film posters flashing on the screens on the wall and a short film about the popularity of the boy wizard. We were then ushered into the most comfortable cinema I have ever been in, to watch a lovely film with Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint talking about their experiences growing up at the studios over a period of ten years. There is then a fantastic surprise reveal of the doors to the Great Hall which resulted in applause and cheers.

The Great Hall is truly stunning and such an iconic film set. The floor is made from real York stone to provide a solid base for ten years of filming and it really does feel like an old building full of history. You can almost hear the sounds of the students and see Nearly Headless Nick and the Bloody Baron floating around! The long tables are on either side, ready for a banquet and we are greeted at the end of the hall by all of the teachers, with Dumbledore at the centre with his owl lecturn which is made of real gold and covered in years worth of candle wax. Here we are given another short talk by the impressive fireplace displaying each house symbol. We are then free to explore the rest of the studios!

The first part is some sights associated with the Great Hall – the floating candles and the Yule Ball and Chocolate Feast props, which really do look real! There are also costumes and a big display of impressive wigs. There is just too much on display to be able to mention – so many props and costumes and all of the most memorable sets. I ended up taking hundreds of photos, but these are the main highlights:

Gryffindor Boys’ Dormitory – home for Harry, Ron, Neville and Seamus. There are initialled trunks under each bed and so much attention to detail including posters for West Ham United and the Chudley Cannons! This set looks much smaller than it does on screen.

Gryffindor Common Room – a very cosy room full of comfortable sofas and chairs and the walls draped in tapestries. Look out for the portrait of a young Prof. McGonagall and cat!

Dumbledore’s Office – a very impressive space full of hundreds of books, which are actually phone books covered in leather! There are 48 portraits of headmasters looking down on us and some of the most memorable props on display including the Sorting Hat, Sword of Gryffindor and Penseive, complete with memory cabinet featuring 800 vials with hand-written labels!

Potions Classroom – hundreds of glass jars full of ingredients protected by the forms of Snape and Slughorn. It really feels like a dark, hidden dungeon in the castle. Look out for the self-stirring cauldron and bezoar on the desks!

Hagrid’s Hut – this oddly enough smelt of animals and mud. The pumpkin patch is outside and Fang is by his master’s side. Here there is also a very interesting display and short film about the animals trained to play the roles of Hedwig, Scabbers, Fang, Crookshanks and Mrs Norris.

The Burrow – there are lots of special effects on display here including knitting needles, a knife and iron which all appear to be working on their own, with Mrs Weasley keeping watch. Here we also see the famous Weasley family clock.

Green Screen area – a very impressive area where we can see the Gringott’s cart, Hagrid’s motorbike and brooksticks in action. There is also a very big surprise where visitors can actually act in two scenes – driving Mr Weasley’s flying car and riding a broomstick through the busy streets of London and over Hogwarts. You can watch the action on the screen in front of you and buy photos of your experience as a very special souvenir! This was great fun a a real highlight of the day!

Ministry of Magic – we are greeted by sinister the Magic is Might statue and get a peep at Delores Umbridge’s very pink office decorated with cat plates. We also see the huge office towers and green fireplaces. Before going out into the sunshine on the Backlot, we meet the Death Eaters and He Who Must Not Be Named and see an amazing cabinet full of paper props which really show how detailed the films were, even if we don’t see everything on screen. Here we see letters, exam papers, exercise books – all characters have their own style of writing and this really bought of the characters to life for me! There are also examples of The Daily Prophet, The Quibbler, Maurader’s Map and lots of Weasley Wizard Wheezes packaging!

Its then out to the Backlot where we can explore Privet Drive, the Knight Bus and the Hogwarts Bridge, which was last seen in flames in the Deathly Hallows Part 2. This is also the chance to finally taste Butterbeer! Its delicious, kind of like cream soda with a caramel syrup. I think this kiosk could be made to feel more like the Hogs Head though…

After passing more Wizards Chess pieces, we enter the Creature Workshop which is fascinating. Here we see how goblins, hippogriffs, house elves and dragons were bought to life and see some life-like models. I loved meeting Dobby and Buckbeak!

From here, we enter Diagon Alley which is breathtaking! All the famous shop fronts are here from Gringotts to Ollivanders and Eyelops Owl Emporium to Flourish and Blotts Bookshop – full of Lockhart books of course! Plus the latest addition to the street Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes which is huge! It is genuinely exciting to walk up and down the cobbled pavement.

The climax to the tour is the jawdropping scale model of Hogwarts Castle, which was used for the aerial scenes. There is so much attention to detail and it is beautiful to look at, with the lights going from day to night every four minutes. We spent ages walking around to see the castle from every angle.

Before you exit into the gift shop, we are taken through Ollivander’s Wand Shop which has a wand labelled with the name of every person who has worked on the films. There are over 4,000 and it really makes you realise the scale of the project and how much work went into them. All of these people were very lucky to be part of something so amazing. A very fitting and poignant end to the day.
Overall the tour was stunning, everything I expected and so much more. Fans of Harry Potter and films in general are in for a real treat.  There were parts when I found myself thinking I was in a museum and started believing that the whole story was in fact real! One of the staff showed me Lily Potter’s letter to Sirius which is a big part of the final book, but not shown in the film and I was really excited, realising a few seconds later that it is in fact fictional!

What I have mentioned above is just the tip of the iceberg, there are literally thousands of props and small details to discover and lots of surprises along the way! There have been some negative comments in the press about the entry price, but I disagree and think it is really good value. The money and time spent on the attraction is obvious and there are hours of entertainment to be enjoyed. I could have spent much longer there. Compared to prices of theme parks, I think its reasonable and I would have been happy if I had paid to go in. In fact I am already planning a return visit to take other HP fans!

I have not stopped raving about my visit over the last week and am now reading all the books and watching all the films once again! It is great to see that with Pottermore and this attraction these amazing stories will keep evolving and living on and on. Mischief Managed.

The Harry Potter Studio Tour opens this weekend and tickets must be booked in advance at

Saturday, 24 March 2012

The Light Between Oceans review

I initially read this book as from previous posts you will know that I am very interested in WWI literature and this novel explores how men from the front line attempt to fit back in to the normality of family life and civilians views as a result of the war. But it is also an exploration of human nature and life choices and how they can affect lives that you don't even know.
Tom Sherbourne returns from WWI with experiences that he never wishes to share with others. He meets Isabel Graysmark, whose family have had their own tragedies with her two young brothers being killed in quick succession. They fall in love and marry and Isabel joins Tom on an island called Janus where he is the lighthouse keeper. Married life starts off as idyllic with them both isolated on such a beautiful island, but it soon changes when Isabel miscarries three babies. One day a boat arrives on the shore carrying a dead man and a very much alive young baby. Tom and Isabel make a choice that will change a lot of lives...
This is possibly the best book I have read so far this year. It is beautiful to read (I now want to live on an island off the coast of Australia!), you feel so much for all the characters involved and I wished there could be a happy ending for everyone. A really refreshing book as I had no idea what was going to happen next. A glorious debut from Stedman, I will be looking forward to her future novels. Without giving too much away this book will make you think and break your heart. Yes, there were a few tears towards the end and I was so disappointed when it finished as I could have read so much more! This is definitely going to be a future read for my book group!
The Light Between Oceans is published on 26th April and can be pre-ordered here

Friday, 16 March 2012

My Dear, I Wanted To Tell You review

Ever since studying World War One literature for A Level English Lit. I have been fascinated with the subject from the horrors the men on the front line went through and their camaraderie to the way families coped at home in Britain. I have studied a range of poetry with various views from the patriotic idealism of Rupert Brooke, the violent realism of Wilfred Owen and Seigfried Sassoon's sarcastic dark humour. Previous WWI novels I have loved include Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks, Strange Meeting by Susan Hill and Pat Barker's Regeneration series, so My Dear... had a lot to compare with and I was interested to see if I would learn anything new in this novel.

It took a while to get in to, but I am pleased to say it made me think about this period of time in a new way and the characters are certainly ones you care about. It begins with young, working-class Riley Purefoy with a talent for painting being semi-adopted by a middle-class family and falling in love with their daughter Nadine Waveney. Her mother is not impressed and Nadine is kept away from Riley. Confused and angry with a couple of situations (I don't want to spoil anything!), Riley signs up to go to France and once there he becomes fully involved in the horrors of war. 

Although working-class, Riley has received a good education and is soon promoted through the ranks, keeping in contact with Nadine with a series of letters. In the meantime, Nadine has become a nurse at a London hospital, with Riley visiting whenever he has leave. On one of his visits they confirm their love for each other. When Riley returns to France, he is seriously injured and while recovering he tells a terrible lie which changes his and Nadine's lives... 

Running alongside this story is a narrative about Riley's CO - Peter Locke's - family. His cousin Rose is involved heavily in the war, nursing in France and then at a hospital in Sidcup specialising in plastic surgery, while his wife feels helpless and feels the only way she can help is to go to extreme measures to look beautiful when her husband returns from the front. Eventually all the characters lives become inter-twined, with interesting contrasts between the women.

My Dear... has all the usual ingredients of WWI novels - male friendship and camaraderie, sometimes getting blurred with homosexuality, dehumanisation of the men fighting, the growing alienation between the men at the front and civilians in Britain who remain innocent of the horrors of war, families unable to understand the suffering of the soldiers once the war is over and the dichotomy between the positive, patriotic feelings at the beginning of the war, to the despair four years later. Interestingly, as Riley signs up to fight he is faced with the choice of service for one year or the duration of the war. He ticks duration as he thinks that will be the shorter option.

I found the change of female roles in the war to be explored more fully in this novel than in previous ones I had read. Women like Nadine, who had lived a sheltered life with a good education and are just expected to marry into money, had the opportunity to leave home and help out in hospitals, nursing the wounded. It made me realise what a catalyst the war was for women to have more freedom in choices, from relationships with men to being able to dress differently. 

Rose and Nadine both take their roles in the war seriously, while Julia who has only ever known how to be an obedient daughter and wife, does not find her calling and instead spends her time in London shopping for pretty clothes and researching beauty treatments. Ironically, she damages her own face herself trying a chemical peel, while Riley is coming to terms with his facial injury.

I was fascinated with the part of the novel set in Sidcup Hospital and the real-life Doctor Gillies. I didn't realise procedures such as facial re-constructive surgery were carried out during that period in time. The treatments were both horrific and heroic, with experiments being carried out to repair the brave young men with terrible injuries.

This book is very moving and at times shocking. Louisa Young writes from both male and female perspectives very well and the story is obviously very well researched, with her own emotion and feelings shining through. This is obviously a subject she cares deeply about and from her Q and A at the end of the book I can see why. The characters are still in my mind, days since completing My Dear... which can only be seen as a sign of a powerful and beautiful story.

My Dear, I Wanted To Tell You is part of the Richard and Judy Book Club reads at WH Smith and more information including a video interview with Louisa Young can be found on their website here